DHS says US-VISIT program is protecting privacy

US-VISIT Privacy Impact Assessment Update

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The Homeland Security Department’s program to screen foreign nationals entering and leaving the country is protecting travelers’ privacy as the program expands, according to a new DHS report.

As the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program expands its capabilities and data sharing with federal law enforcement agencies, it is enlarging the pool of travelers whose personal data is potentially at risk, said Steve Yonkers, US-VISIT’s privacy officer, in a statement about the program’s updated Privacy Impact Assessment.

But US-VISIT mitigates the specific privacy risks associated with its new functionality and increased data sharing “through numerous mitigation efforts, including access controls, education and training, encryption, minimizing collection, and use of personal information,” the report states.

DHS officials revised US-VISIT’s privacy assessment to accommodate changes in the program, including new procedures and technology to track foreign visitors leaving from airports and seaports. Those changes will be introduced by Dec. 31.

US-VISIT tested three methods for tracking departing visitors: a kiosk, a handheld terminal and a combination of the two, the report states. The combination provided the best security but the strongest privacy concerns, according to the report, which states that program officials are taking appropriate action to protect privacy with all three methods.

Program officials have also approved a proof of concept for technology based on passive radio frequency identification technology, which will track holders of I-94 visa holders as they enter and leave the United States. US-VISIT officials will start testing the RFID chips in August. They plan to deploy them at the 50 busiest land ports of entry by Dec. 31, 2007.

Each tag will have unique ID number that scanners will read as the visa holder crosses back and forth. The RFID tag number will contain no personal information and will not identify the bearer as a nonimmigrant or a participant in US-VISIT. The passive RFID tags have a limited range and don’t broadcast their data, according to the report.

DHS has created a new records system, the Automated Identification Management System (AIDMS), to coordinate the RFID tags with existing records management systems.

AIDMS must be accredited and certified by DHS before the RFID test begins, the report states. Only authorized personnel can gain access to the system and only through secure terminals and networks.

US-VISIT included a privacy assessment with its rollout in January 2004. The assessment was updated in September 2004 when participants in the Visa Waiver Program were included in the US-VISIT program. At that time, the program was expanded to the 50 busiest land ports of entry, and DHS altered its information-sharing procedures with federal law enforcement agencies.

The information US-VISIT collects includes complete name; date of birth; gender; country of citizenship; passport number and country of issuance; country of residence; travel document type, number and date and country of issuance; and complete U.S. destination address, arrival and departure information.

US-VISIT collects a digital photo and digital fingerprint scans of travelers’ index fingers. The program will also collect the RFID tag number for those travelers who require visas and cross land borders.


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